Ponepinto mines the micro, mundane, and neutral in his new political satire.
Novel | 300 Pages | 5.5” x 8.5” | Reviewed: PDF ARC
978–0998409245 | First Edition | $15.99
7.13 Books | Brooklyn | BUY HERE
Novelists are my favorite magicians. Joe Ponepinto’s Mr. Neutron pulls off a fantastic trick. He turns a seemingly ordinary campaign for mayor of an undistinguished city into an extraordinary event and the basis of a singular novel. Abracadabra, indeed.
The main character is an unsuccessful, small field political operative named Gray Davenport. Somehow he has made a living on sinking ships, representing candidates for small offices they don’t ever win. He sees himself as a neutron:
“In a world that pulsed with electricity, he was neither positively nor negatively charged. A neutron, if you will, a fraction of an atom, taking up an area of space so insignificant that it was no surprise to be regularly ignored. He lived in a universe of despair, where the physics of random chance had conspired to render him moot, to keep him down, and where nothing he could do would change that destiny.”
Gray is driven to understand his calling in the middle. It is this neutral space where the novel thrives. Most political novels work with either positively or negatively charged characters. They focus on the macro, the high stakes, the big stage. Ponepinto stays with the uncharged. He mines the mundane and the micro. The only setting I can think of close to this may be Leslie Knope’s Pawnee, Indiana, City Council career in the television show, Parks and Recreation. None of this is to suggest that Mr. Neutron doesn’t work. Like all good magicians, Ponepinto perfectly brings your eye to the unexpected.
The start of the unusual is a large character in the mayoral race inexplicably named Reason. Both Reason’s appearance in the campaign and his physical appearance shake the fabric of the town. His largeness is the counterpart to Gray’s smallness, his charge the offset to Gray’s neutrality.
“Gray sensed his mouth hanging open and pressed his fingers up to shut it. He’d heard the man was tall, but this dude reached at least eight feet. Each of those clomps shook the floor all the way back to where he stood. He’d infiltrated Reason Wilder’s campaign fundraiser, seeking to learn about the newcomer and what made him so popular: how he looked, how he spoke, what he stood for. But what Gray discovered only raised more questions. This candidate was beyond unusual. More like unnatural.”
Reason is the outlier of the setting — a Cormac McCarthy-sized character thrown into the mix of the micro.
Gray seems self-aware that neutrality risks boredom or stagnation. He seems to know that a trick is required to get anyone to care about his small arena, but he also knows that’s what’s great about his story. It somehow still is impossible for him (or the reader) to take his eyes off of it. He plays with aspirations represented in the thoughts of his alter-ego, Monterey Jack. In describing the alter-ego Monterey Jack, the character is by default defining what his own ego isn’t like.
“Now there was a name. It bubbled with testosterone and reeked of sweat. Monterey Jack, he of the three-day stubble and flower-wilting breath, the meanest, toughest hombre who ever stalked the Sierra Nevadas in search of silver, women and whiskey. A man with a name like that ate raw horseflesh; he cleaned his toenails with a Bowie knife. He feared no man, no challenge; needed no sidekick to help him through.”
Gray often asks the question, “What would Jack do?” while proceeding to do nothing of the sort. His dissatisfaction with this pattern becomes the engine of the novel and the driving question: If a neutron wants it bad enough, can it find a charge? An obvious and funny answer is not without a lot of failures first. Eventually, Gray becomes obsessed with understanding the cult of Reason Wilder, including resolving a nagging idea that he is more monster than man, more like something Dr. Frankenstein has created. This drive begins a series of hilarious events that are reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon or Hunter S. Thompson, mixed in with an updated form of satire that matches the high bar of today’s true political absurdity. In the end, the combination of these elements, large and small, positive and negative, as well as neutral, is sure to leave the reader positively charged.
AL KRATZ is a Staff Book Reviewer for The Coil. He is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa, a former reader for Wyvern Lit and Pithead Chapel, and is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He has had work featured in Red Savina Review, Wyvern Lit, Third Point Press, Daily Palette, Apeiron Review, Corvus Review, 1000words, Gravel, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere, and he is the winner of the 2013 British Fantasy Society Flash Fiction Competition and second place winner of the 2016 Bath Flash Fiction Award. Find him at alkratz.blogspot.com.